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September 17, 2014

Prof. Leigh Bienen’s intriguing biography of Florence Kelley

by Dan Rodriguez

Florence Kelley and the Children

My colleague, Leigh Buchanan Bienen, who is first and foremost an expert on (and agitator for) capital punishment reform, just published a book about Florence Kelley—labor activist, political reformer, and 1895 Northwestern Law alumna. Kelley’s tireless efforts to reform labor laws, particularly for women and children, had a profound impact on working in the United States.

Florence Kelley and the Children: Factory Inspector in 1890s Chicago, focuses on Kelley’s life in Chicago in the 1890s, during which time she served as Chief Factory Inspector for the State of Illinois. A woman in a job like that was all but unheard of in those days, but so was a woman earning a law degree. Kelley put her legal education to good use in her lifelong efforts to change labor laws. She battled legislation challenging the Illinois factory inspection law all the way to the Supreme Court, and won. She was one of the contributors to the 1908 Brandeis Brief, which combined legal argument with scientific evidence and changed American jurisprudence forever, and she worked on other labor-law cases heard by the nation’s highest court. She was an appellate rock star in an age when women couldn’t vote.

The book is more than a just a history, though. Using biographical elements from her own life and work, Leigh draws interesting parallels between the struggles of the labor movement of the late 19th century and the events that led to the end of capital punishment in Illinois just a few years ago. Alex Kotlowitz, author of There Are No Children Here, describes the book in this way: “In these pages, Leigh Bienen offers a worthy tribute to Kelley and draws intriguing parallels to the struggles of today.”

My congratulations, and my thanks, to Leigh!

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